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Jagr’s Proving That You Can Go Home Again



Jaromir Jagr

Jaromir Jagr is not the same guy who made his first trip to Pittsburgh in 1990.

The mullet that became something of a trademark for him when he was a teenager is long gone, replaced by a more businesslike hairstyle. And there are more than a few strands of gray on his head these days.

But in a lot of ways, Jagr hasn’t changed all that much. His smile remains quick and wide, his laugh infectious, his sense of humor and self-awareness sharp.

Those qualities were evident during a panel discussion featuring Jagr and former teammates Kevin Stevens, Phil Bourque and Jay Caufield and moderated by Penguins communications specialist Paul Steigerwald Friday evening in a ballroom at Rivers Casino.

It was the first event in a weekend-long celebration of Jagr’s accomplishments during his 11 seasons with the Penguins. The culmination will be a ceremony Sunday at 4:15 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena during which Jagr’s No. 68 will join Mario Lemieux’s No. 66 and Michel Briere’s No. 21 as the only retired numbers in franchise history.

That event will precede the Penguins’ game against Los Angeles, which is set to begin at 6:08 p.m.

Between now and then, Jagr and many of his acquaintances from his 11 seasons with the Penguins will spend a lot of time together, swapping stories about winning Stanley Cups and scoring titles, about how Jagr grew — as a player, and as a man — during his time here, about what it was like to play for Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman.

Quite a few of those tales got a public airing during an hour-long session in the casino ballroom.

Idolizing Lemieux

The Penguins drafted Jagr in 1990, but he had decided five years earlier that he wanted to play for them someday.

Or, more to the point, that he wanted to be teammates with Lemieux.

“Mario was my idol,” Jagr said. “I said right away that I want to be like him.”

He came to that conclusion after watching Lemieux play for Team Canada in the 1985 world championships in Prague. Specifically, after seeing Lemieux score twice in a 3-2 victory against Russia.

Although Lemieux did not attend the event Friday night, it’s hard to believe that he won’t be on hand for the retirement ceremony Sunday.

“They had a bond,” Bourque said. “I think they still do.”

That is, in part, because they have so many shared experiences. Not only did they win a couple of Stanley Cups together, but both made a habit of collecting NHL scoring championships.

Lemieux finished with six, Jagr with five — all while playing for the Penguins.

Such was Jagr’s reverence for Lemieux that he said he’s happy they never went head-to-head for one of those Art Ross trophies.

“I respected him so much that I didn’t want to win it (over him),” Jagr said.

That’s the ticket

Jagr racked up 1,079 points during his tenure with the Penguins, a start that ultimately catapulted him to second place on the NHL’s all-time scoring list.

There were times during the early portions of his time here when he seemed to be accumulating traffic citations and warnings almost as often as he got points and assists.

His misadventures behind the wheel started early — Jagr said he hit a deer the first time he drove in the U.S. — and even in the days before social media, tales of him being pulled over by the police for traffic violations circulated freely.

Jagr said officers in Upper St. Clair, where he lived, were particularly aware of him.

“They were just waiting for me every day,” he said.

His vehicle of choice back then was a black Camaro, and Bourque recalled the time — the only time — he bummed a ride from Jagr.

“There was something on the floor, and it looked like a speeding ticket,” Bourque said. “I said, ‘Oh, hey Yags …’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, throw that in the glove box. I popped open the glove box and there were probably a dozen more in there. I just shoved it in there. I could barely close the door.”

Jagr did not deny his highway transgressions, but did offer an interesting defense of them.

“It didn’t make sense to me, the speed limit,” he said. “Why are you going to make fast cars if there’s a speed limit?”

Coming up big

Although Jagr was a full-grown man when the Penguins drafted him — official league records list him as being 6-foot-3, 240 pounds then, and he possessed what Bourque described as a rear end “the size of Rhode Island” — he still wasn’t quite prepared for the first of his teammates that he met upon arriving in Pittsburgh.

That would be Caufield, who had been a college tight end at North Dakota before focusing on a career in hockey.

“The only guy who was at the gym was Jay,” Jagr said. “I was there with my mom and my dad and (then-GM) Craig Patrick said, ‘Oh, there’s one player. That’s your teammate for next year. I saw Jay, and I turned to my dad and said, ‘Dad, I’m going home. I cannot play in the NHL.’

“I was scared. And Craig said, ‘Don’t worry about it. He’s the only one.’ But then I saw (Stevens) and I knew Craig was lying.”

Healing old wounds

Jagr was, of course, warmly received by the crowd in the ballroom, but there was a time when he felt Penguins fans had turned on him.

That was after he departed in 2001, going to Washington in a trade, and subsequently when he was playing for the likes of Philadelphia, Boston and the New York Rangers.

Jagr was routinely booed when he played in Pittsburgh, and didn’t grasp that it was the laundry, not the guy in it, that was drawing the ire of crowds here.

“He didn’t quite understand why it was happening,” Bourque said. “I said … you were wearing a jersey that we all hated. You were trying to beat us. It was in the context of sports that we were booing you. Nothing personal, because we loved you as a Penguin. We were booing you more out of fear, out of what you could potentially do to us, and hurt us on the scoreboard.”

Bourque said that message got through when he visited Jagr in his hometown of Kladno in Czechia last year.

“Whatever words I chose, it was enough to kind of open up his eyes a bit, open up his heart, and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Maybe they don’t hate me as much as I thought they did.’ ”

No, Friday night proved that they obviously do not.